Stuart Beattie grew up in Australia, becoming one of that country’s seemingly boundless series of quality filmmakers. He spent twelve years as a screenwriter, helping to pen the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, as well as such fare as Collateral, 30 Days of Night and the first G.I. Joe film. He takes a spin in the director’s chair this winter, helming the new horror-action film I, Frankenstein. In an exclusive interview with Mania, he sat down to talk about the project and the daunting legacy it hopes to join.
Question: This is the second film you’ve directed after a long history of screenwriting. What made it a particularly good fit for that?
Stuart Beattie: I always wanted to be a director. It was always a goal. I just kind of knew that no one was going to give me a directing gig. But I love writing, and if you write, you know that it’s another means of directing. And for a while that was great. I could go on set and watch them work there and gradually pick up the skills I’d need to take a go at it myself. Then a couple of years ago, I started to get that itch. I could feel myself getting comfortable and that’s never a place you want to be. You always want to challenge yourself. They had a story called Tomorrow, When the War Began that they wanted me to adapt. I said, “Well if you want me to write it, why don’t you let me direct it?” They said “Yes.” That was the time of my life and it felt like the right time to be doing something like that.
Then when this film came around, it had a bigger budget and a chance to tell a story on a much larger scale. I had to sell them on the pitch a little bit. I had to pitch it three times. I kept saying, “It’s about a monster who becomes a man.” They said, “But there’s gonna be action in it, right?” I said, “Yes, it’s an action movie… about a monster who becomes a man.” They finally said, “Oh okay.”
Q: With Frankenstein, you’re dealing with not only a great novel, but a story with an incredibly rich cinematic history. How did you approach the prospect of adding to that legacy? Of delivering a new take on the old story?
SB: The appeal was basically the character: a chance to do an action movie with this amazing character at the core. I was able to keep the monster around, to show him scared, angry, isolated, heartbroken – all the things that made him so unforgettable – and try to make that work in an action picture. And not just work but bring something fresh and interesting to both the old character and the new story. The character’s weight of personality actually helps ground him in the action scenes. He’s not just this mindless thing tossing people around. You get why he’s behaving as he does, where that hardness and sadness comes from.
The other part was seeing that kind of character he’d be like 200 years after the Mary Shelley story. We see him hopping on an ice flow and going off to die, but what happens then? What happens if he doesn’t die, if he can’t die? What happens if the doctor gave him immortality as well as life, and thus doomed him to this horrible existence forever? Now suddenly you’re going off in some very interesting directions. You get somebody just fueled by hate, who couldn’t give a shit about mankind. Then you take that figure and you give him a shot at redemption. It was just a terrific idea.
Q: So it really is like a sequel to the Mary Shelley story.
SB: I would never presume so much, but basically yes. There wasn’t a point to just retelling Shelley. It’s been done a thousand times, both good and bad, and why just go for 1,001? We wanted to take the character on a new journey, but also to do it in such a way so that it wouldn’t run counter to the Shelley story. A possible next chapter.
Q: What was it that made Aaron Eckhart so key to all of that?
SB: Getting Aaron was everything. Everyone coming to a movie with Frankenstein in the title is going to have their own preconceived notions about it. Aaron’s got to work first to override those conceptions and then create new ones. The only way to do that is to get the right guy in that role. There aren’t a lot of actors who can do it, and Aaron is one of them. The first time he walked onto set in character – with the costume and the make-up and all the physical work he did before the shoot – we knew we had it. This was the guy to pull off that challenge.
On top of that, we didn’t have the luxury of time on this film. Our shooting schedule was nine weeks and it included setting up some effects shots that would have been big on a movie with twice the budget. You can’t afford to mess around. And Aaron was ready, every time. He knew what we needed, he knew what we were going after, and he just dove into it every time. Someone like that leads the way, and the rest of the cast and crew pick up their game in the return. We wouldn’t have made it out of the shoot without that level of commitment.